Plans put town of 4,000 in E. Collier

A long-planned town on rural lands in eastern Collier County might be closer to reality.

Collier Enterprises said Friday it is working with Canadian-based Minto Communities on planning and permitting about 4,000 homes and a 150,000-square-foot town center as part of the first phase of development for the 4,000-acre Rural Lands West property in eastern Collier County.

Patrick Utter, vice president of real estate for Naples based Collier Enterprises, said it chose Minto as the community’s first builder because “they have a big environmental focus and we think they have a good understanding of the market.”

Minto is the builder of the Isles of Collier Preserve, an eco-oriented community it created after acquiring Collier Enterprises’ former Sabal Bay property in 2012. The permitting process for Rural Lands West will involve local, state and federal agencies, and is estimated to take two to three years to complete.

Site preparation on the property, which is at Oil Well Road just east of Golden Gate Estates, is expected to begin in 2017. About 90 percent of the land currently is farmland leased to a number of winter vegetable growers, Utter said. The first homes will come on line a year later, and will be targeted to a broad group of buyers of different ages and incomes, as in the nearby town of Ave Maria. Over the next 15 to 20 years, 10,000 residential homes and 1.9 million square feet of commercial space are scheduled to be built.

Commercial development will include office, manufacturing, retail, dining, recreation and entertainment, health care, schools, civic and cultural centers. The goal is to create a self-sustaining town with services and jobs for residents both within the community and nearby.

More than 40 acres of parks and up to 54 holes of golf also are planned. William Bullock, a senior vice president for Minto, said plans for the community were still in the “high concept” planning stages, so he could not provide details about home prices, architectural styles or amenities. But he expected the
new town will have lakes and miles of walkways linked to the town center, and perhaps even a community garden or farm to pay homage to its agrarian roots.

“There will be very novel and solid land management practices—cutting edge,” he said, adding community comment would be solicited during the planning stages.

He also said much attention will be paid to creating good flow-ways and storm water management throughout site, addressing a concern of some environmentalists. Rural Lands West is a temporary name reflecting the location of the property along the western border of the 200,000-acre Rural Lands Stewardship, created by the county through a zoning measure in 2002. The actual name of the community will be selected during the planning and permitting process.

It is the successor to a much bigger community that Collier Enterprises first proposed in 2006 called the Town of Big Cypress. On 8,000 acres of agricultural land, the plan would have created 25,000 homes. But the earlier plan raised some environmental issues, and the housing bust eventually shelved the project, said Jim Beever, a principal planner with the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council.

While the housing market has recovered spectacularly, some environmental concerns about the impact of the new project on wildlife and wetlands remain, he said. “It’s panther habitat today, so it’s not a question of panthers coming into backyards,” he said. “It’s a question of backyards coming to the panthers.” He said the project also could affect other wildlife such as black bears, wading birds and reptiles, including the threatened eastern Indigo snake, a nonvenomous reptile that is the longest snake in the United States, reaching lengths of nearly nine feet.

Rob Moher, president of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, said he hasn’t yet seen detailed plans for the new project, and would reserve judgment until he did. However, he said it appears that some of the project will intrude on primary panther habitat — which exists on agricultural as well as wild lands — which could cause aggression and deaths among the animals.

“You can’t be taking away habitat when trying to protect species,” he said. Nancy Payton, the Southwest Florida field representative for the Florida Wildlife Federation, said she too needs to know more before deciding if she’s comfortable with the project.

She said she’s encouraged by the wider efforts of Collier Enterprises and other large property owners in the area to develop a habitat conservation plan jointly rather than piecemeal, and also by the fact that no new road interchange is planned off Alligator Alley.

But she’s concerned about what will be done to discourage panthers and bears from moving into populated areas. “They can do that with open areas, they can do that with lakes or water features, or fencing,” she said.

Collier Enterprises expects to meet with county staff in the next four to six weeks to start discussing permitting requirements, Utter said. The project also will require a thumbs-up from the South Florida Water Management District and the Army Corps of Engineers, he said.

But County Commissioner Donna Fiala said that at least initially she was pleased to see how much of the sensitive lands would be preserved. Future county residents need to live somewhere, she added. “There’s not much room to expand, but people keep on coming,” she said, “so we have to look for land we can develop.”

Mark Strain, Collier County’s chief hearing examiner and chairman of the county’s Planning Commission, said that while he doesn’t have many details yet on the project, he expects environmental and access issues still will have to be addressed, as well as concerns about the financial impact to the county because of the road, water and other service costs it may generate for taxpayers.

The project will be treated as a stewardship receiving area, or a town, not a planned unit development. Unlike a PUD, which needs a super majority vote from the county commission for approval, a stewardship receiving area requires only a majority vote, or three out of five votes.

He said a pre-application meeting with county staff will occur in June, and an application likely will be submitted by fall. That will kick-start the formal review process.

The application will go to the planning commission for a recommendation before it reaches the county commission. “This is considered like a rezoning, and is a substantial public concern, so it needs to go through the full process,” Strain said.

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